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Cobalt Is Still a Hip Hangout : One of the first coffeehouses of the renewed caffeine scene offers stand-up poetry in an atmosphere of freedom.

July 09, 1993|SUSAN HEEGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Two and a half years ago, when Cobalt Cafe opened its doors on a busy stretch of Ventura Boulevard in Woodland Hills, it stood all but alone in the San Fernando Valley, one of the few coffeehouses to venture above the Sepulveda Pass. Today the scene has changed: Valley java parlors are almost as common as nail salons, and some boast the same mix of open-mike nights, poetry readings and live music shows that Cobalt has featured from the beginning.

But Cobalt, with its cool blue sign, less-is-more decor and jumping coffee bar, is still a hip place to hang out, especially for those interested in poetry. "The level of work read here is astonishingly good," says Vic Day of Sun Valley, one of Cobalt's literary regulars.

Day's opinion is echoed by fellow writer Christian E. Elder of Canoga Park, who, like Day, has read at poetry venues throughout the city. "The most exciting poetry I've heard has been here," he thinks. "We encourage people to enjoy themselves--and to be entertaining."

At Cobalt, where the crowd is young (ages 16 to 35) and the coffee is served with a cafe-style menu of sandwiches, salads, muffins and desserts, the key word is entertaining . Only those writers who can hold their own against the hiss of the espresso machine and the constant comings and goings of people catching outdoor smoking breaks really belong in its spotlights.

Tuesday night open readings, with Canoga Park screenwriter Steve Kinkaid, are a good testing ground for would-be stand-up poets. At 8:30 p.m., anyone may sign up on a first-come, first-served basis for five- to seven-minute reading stints, which begin at 9 p.m. and cost nothing to listen to.

"It's more fun, not as serious around here as it used to be," says Kinkaid, who has led the evening for over a year. "You get a lot of good-natured heckling."

Dave Politi, Cobalt's 31-year-old owner, describes "the rawness of the ambience" at his club, which, he says, the patrons appreciate: "We allow a lot of things to happen here that may not happen anywhere else. It's a very free atmosphere."

Scheduled poetry readings--like Cobalt's scheduled musical events--often draw well-known names from Los Angeles. But often, as is the case with many writers on the calendar for July, lively readers on open-poetry nights begin to gather their own followings, creating a demand for a special performance.

The two scheduled readings in July feature writers who have appeared before a Cobalt crowd.

Vic Day, one of the cafe's more popular poets, will present his work July 15. Day, a dramatic reader who can storm a room with his upraised fists and big-man's basso profundo voice, has published poetry in such local literary magazines as Red Dancefloor, Caffeine and Dance of the Iguana. His choice of subjects ranges widely--from the spiritual to the confessional to the erotic--and his imagery draws on his mixed Irish and American Indian heritage.

On the bill with Day is Thousand Oaks poet Kimberly Griswold--known professionally as Friday--a reader whose performance style slides easily from the declarative to the intimate. Friday's poetry explores love, betrayal and the confusion of contemporary relationships.

The same evening, Newbury Park poet Frank Massetti will offer something rare on the coffeehouse circuit: rhymed verse. With a quiet, understated reading style that matches his work, Massetti crafts his poems from his observations about politics, language, love and existential mystery.

Completing the program, Reseda writer Jane Laurel will read her poetry, which she describes, as "an affectionately cynical commentary on social, political and environmental issues."

A second group of Cobalt's featured literati will appear July 29. Among the readers will be Los Angeles stand-up comic, musician and poet June Melby, who relishes poetry evenings, she says, as "an opportunity to read pieces that don't necessarily have laughs every five to seven seconds."

Joining Melby will be Honest John, as he's known, a frequent performer at area comedy clubs and coffeehouses. His poetry is full of emotion, particularly when he describes scenes from a lonely, solitary childhood.

The third reader will be Christian E. Elder, a writer with a theatrical style that suggests the power and weight of words. His poetry focuses on love, race, resentment and alienation.

To complete the program, David (Genghis) Jenkins of Van Nuys plans to perform work that he denies is poetry. "I am not a poet," he insists. "I write automatically and what comes out is what I feel like saying at that moment."

Where and When Location: Cobalt Cafe, 21622 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. Hours: 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., Sundays to Thursdays, 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., Fridays and Saturdays. Open readings: 9 p.m. every Tuesday; sign-ups at 8:30 p.m. Featured readings: 9 p.m., July 15 and 29. Price: $3 cover Friday and Saturday; $2 cover or one-drink minimum on open-mike nights (Mondays and Wednesdays); other nights free. Call: (818) 348-3789.

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